I hoped she might be the first immortal among us,” wrote American writer Roxane Gay after the passing of Toni Morrison last week at the age of 88. For Morrison was not only a towering intellectual and visionary novelist, she had also been philosopher, teacher and guide to a generation of younger women writers.
“When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for,” Morrison told her students, “just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”
For Morrison, freedom, responsibility and power were the preoccupations of a lifetime of writing and thought. In 1971, she published the essay What the Black Woman Thinks about Women’s Lib in The New York Times. “Distrust,” she wrote with her characteristic bluntness, is what the black woman thought about it: “It is white, therefore suspect. In spite of the fact that liberating movements in the black world have been catalysts for white feminism, too many movements and organisations have made deliberate overtures to enroll blacks and have ended up by rolling them. They don’t want to be used again to help somebody gain power — a power that is carefully kept out of their hands. They look at white women and see them as the enemy — for they know that racism is not confined to white men, and that there are more white women than men in this country, and that 53 per cent of the population sustained an eloquent silence during times of greatest stress.”
She wrote this half a century ago but Morrison could have been talking about present-day USA. In her fiction, essays, editing and teaching, she reflected constantly on the meaning of freedom, the nature of responsibility, and what it means to be a black woman. She was aware of the role of the artist in using language to push the frontiers of knowledge and to heal; equally, she was acutely conscious of the ways in which language could damage and destroy. “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”
As an editor, Morrison knew what she could do and needed to do: “I wanted to give back something. I wasn’t marching. But I could make sure there was a published record of those who did march and did put themselves on the line.” As a teacher, she urged students to give back: “Make a difference about something other than yourselves.”
Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, who plays the protagonist Sethe, a former slave, in the 1998 cinematic adaptation of Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved (1987), once described Morrison as “conscience, seer, truth-teller”. How does a writer find the truth and then return to tell it to others? In her Nobel Lecture, Morrison narrates the story of an old woman, the daughter of slaves, blind but wise in the way of clairvoyant elders everywhere. One day some young people come to heckle the old woman, pretending to test her powers. They bring a bird in their hands and ask her if it is dead or alive. After a long pause, the woman replies that she does not know if the bird is dead or alive — but that “it is in your hands”.
The bird, says Morrison, is language; and the old woman is the writer. What a culture does with language is in its hands. “Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.”
Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931, in a small town in Ohio, Morrison studied English at Howard University and Cornell. She became a path-breaking book editor who changed what it meant to be a black writer in America.
While working as an editor and bringing up two children as a single mother, Morrison began to wake up every morning at 4 to write. That was how she wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), a masterpiece about the wounds caused by internalised racism. In 1987, four years after leaving her editing job to write and teach, Morrison published her greatest novel Beloved, set in the period after the American Civil War, about a former slave who kills her baby daughter to prevent her from being forced into slavery. In 1993, she became the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, for the “visionary force and poetic import” of her writing.
In the foreword to Beloved, Morrison describes how the story came to her almost mystically. As she sat by the river after the loss of her editing job, she was now free to write all day. She began to reflect on the meaning of freedom. While the debates about women’s liberation in the Eighties were all about equal pay, choice and so on, she thought about the different history of black women in America: a history in which marriage was discouraged or even illegal; where they were required to have children, but not allowed to be mothers, and their children taken forcibly from them. Freedom and responsibility acquired another meaning under such conditions.
When I read about Morrison’s passing last week, I pulled out my copy of Beloved and went back to the beautiful, terrible description of Sethe’s memories of the plantation: “The plash of water, the sight of her shoes and stockings awry on the path where she had flung them; or Here Boy lapping in the puddle near her feet, and suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right but hidden in lacy groves. Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed her — remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that.”
As a writer, that was what Toni Morrison did. She travelled back. She immersed herself in that “shameless beauty”, in the histories and the pain — and then she emerged from there and made it her life’s work to write about it.
In the passing of Toni Morrison, the world has lost a voice that crossed the worlds. Fistfuls of truth are scattered like jewels in her writing, in sentences that so dazzling that we can barely look at them. They are there in the powerful economy of sentences such as these: “Men and women were moved around like checkers.” “We was girls together.” “Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man.” In the heart-stopping sweetness of a slave son’s love when he works five years of Sundays in order to buy his mother’s freedom, “just to see her sit down for a change”. In the love of Sethe and Halle: “Who could miss a ripple in a cornfield on a quiet cloudless day?” And in the four-word epigraph to Beloved, a reference to the scale of the Atlantic slave trade: “sixty million and more.”
Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is a bureaucrat, currently based in Bengaluru